Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?
Ability to Analyze May Be Affected, Experts Worry

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007

It's homework time and 17-year-old Megan Casady of Silver Spring is ready to study.

She heads down to the basement, turns on MTV and boots up her computer. Over the next half hour, Megan will send about a dozen instant messages discussing the potential for a midweek snow day. She'll take at least one cellphone call, fire off a couple of text messages, scan Weather.com, volunteer to help with a campus cleanup day at James Hubert Blake High School where she is a senior, post some comments on a friend's Facebook page and check out the new pom squad pictures another friend has posted on hers.

In between, she'll define "descent with modification" and explain how "the tree analogy represents the evolutionary relationship of creatures" on a worksheet for her AP biology class.

Call it multitasking homework, Generation 'Net style.

The students who do it say multitasking makes them feel more productive and less stressed. Researchers aren't sure what the long-term impact will be because no studies have probed its effect on teenage development. But some fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people's ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

There is special concern for teenagers because parts of their brain are still developing, said Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

"Introducing multitasking in younger kids in my opinion can be detrimental," he said. "One of the biggest problems about multitasking is that it's almost impossible to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you're multitasking. And if it becomes normal to do, you'll likely be satisfied with very surface-level investigation and knowledge."

Megan's parents, Steven and Donna Casady, might have their worries about the iPod/IM/text messaging/MTV effect on Megan's ability to retain the definition of "biochemical similarity," but they say it's hard to argue with a teenager who boasts a 3.85 unweighted grade-point average.

"To me, it's nothing but chaos," Steven Casady said. "But these kids? It seems to work for them. It seems to work for [Megan]. But it's hard for me to be in the same room when this is going on."

Thanks to the Internet, students say, facts are at their fingertips. If they get stuck on a math problem, they say, help is only an IM away.

"I honestly feel like I'm able to accomplish more during an hour if I multitask," said Christine Stoddard, 18, a senior at Yorktown High School in Arlington County. "If it's something like English or history that comes easily to me, then I can easily divide my attention. It's the way I've always been."

In fact, Christine sheepishly confessed that she was filling out a college scholarship application while being interviewed for this story.

Whatever the consequences of multitasking, they're going to be widespread. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that when students are sitting in front of their computers "studying," they're also doing something else 65 percent of the time. In 1999, 16 percent of teenagers said they were "media multitaskers" -- defined as using several type of media, such as television or computers, at once. By 2005, that percentage had increased to 26 percent. The foundation also found that girls were more likely to media multitask than boys.

The current generation of teens "is trying to do lots of multitasking because they think it's cool and less boring and because they have lots of gadgets that help them be more successful at this," said David Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. "The belief is they're getting good at this and that they're much better than the older generation at it and that there's no cost to their efficiency."

Meyer, a psychologist and cognitive scientist who studies multitasking, has doubts.

"Kids who grow up under conditions where they have to multitask a lot may be developing styles of coping that would allow them to perform better in future environments where required to do a lot, but that doesn't mean their performance in the workplace would be better than if they were doing one thing at a time."

Researchers say there isn't any answer yet to whether multitasking helps, hurts or has no effect on teens' development.

"Given that kids have grown up always doing this, it may turn out that they are more skilled at it. We just don't know yet," said Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who co-authored a study that examined multitasking and brain activity.

In Poldrack's study, volunteers in their 20s were given stacks of cards and asked to sort them. Then they were told to listen to a series of tones and identify the high-pitched ones while they sorted the cards. Researchers found that although there were similar success rates between the two groups when it came to sorting, when interviewed later, those who did not multitask were able to describe the cards in more detail.

Poldrack said imaging showed that different parts of the brain were active depending on whether the subjects did single or multiple tasks. When subjects were focused on sorting, the hippocampus -- the part of the brain responsible for storing and recalling information -- was engaged. But when they were multitasking, that part of the brain was quiet and the part of the brain used to master repetitive skills -- the striatum -- was active.

Multitaskers "may not be building the same knowledge that they would be if they were focusing," Poldrack said. "While multitasking makes them feel like they are being more efficient, research suggests that there's very little you can do that involves multitasking that you can be as good at when you're not multitasking."

Meyer said if parts of the brain are less active when someone is multitasking, it could be especially detrimental for teenagers, who are still developing their ability to think and analyze information.

"They develop a more superficial style of study and may not learn material as well. What they get out of their study might be less deep," he said.

They might be getting goods grades, Meyer said, but there's a chance they could be getting better grades if they learned to focus on a single task or academic subject at a time.

Teens say they know there are limits.

Blake student Priscilla Tiglao, 17, is a multitasking blur when she sits down at her desk in the evening. But she says she will often forgo IM chats when it comes to AP chemistry or AP psychology -- topics she finds more taxing. She might however, bend the rules for AP statistics.

Nane Tiglao, Priscilla's mother, is a nurse who is used to juggling multiple tasks. She talks on the phone while cooking and doing other chores. But when she watches her daughter -- oy.

Still, she thinks, in the end this will be good for Priscilla.

"I think it's necessary for the future," Tiglao said. "This generation needs to multitask and to do it right. It's a good trait for anyone."

Meyer, a multitasker himself, agrees with some of that sentiment. Many jobs demand, even require, people to be multitaskers: air traffic controllers, bond traders, commodities brokers, to name a few.

"In that case, possibly the future's bright for these kids," he said. "But I think what's really needed in the future is a fairly heavy emphasis on learning and performing in different situations. If they want to be learning and performing under conditions of multitasking, then fine. But don't let them get away with just doing just that and completely losing out on other forms of learning."

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